With 1967's The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, we bid a fond adieu to Robert A. Heinlein's Hugo winners. And there's just no getting out of it: We're not that sorry to see him go.
Much as I love Heinlein — I think I've made that abundantly (possibly overabundantly) clear in my previous posts — I'm not terribly sorry to be done with him. Heinlein gets painted as a love-him-or-hate-him writer, but for me at least, it's more like love-him-and-hate-him, especially after four books in five months. What I mean to say is, there's a particular challenge involved in discussing The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, and I want to be up-front about it:
Heinlein's primary genius — the quality that more than anything else, I think, earned him fame in his lifetime and thereafter — lay in his ability to examine an idea outside of its real-life social constraints. I mean, yeah, a lot of science fiction does that (and so do other genres), but his brilliance was that he could explain how there ought to be no moral objection to, say, polyamory, or sex with a teenager, or sex with a teenage clone of yourself, and still manage to sound like someone's grumpy old grandpa, rather than a radical drugged-out beatnik, while doing it.
This was a very important quality, and I'll say more about why shortly. But it's also a problematic quality, because it paints rather a false picture of how things are. The truth is, in real life, it's often impossible to separate your analysis of something from the social constraints and other particularities surrounding it; it's often impossible to even clearly delineate where the "something" stops and the particularities surrounding it begin. For example, the challenge I'm facing with Harsh Mistress: I can't think about the book right now without considering the other three Heinlein books I've recently read for this series. And even if I held off for a year or a decade before writing about it, I'd still remember something about how I felt now, and I'd certainly have plenty of other thoughts about the author in general.
So, if a big chunk of my experience reading this book boiled down to me thinking, For crying out loud, I am so, so tired of the one and only one voice Robert A. Heinlein is capable of writing in* — well, is that really fair? I can't really indict the whole novel simply because I'm past my saturation point with the author. And yet, isn't it also fair to say that gosh, this book would have impressed me more if the tone and characters and plot points had been a little more evolved than the writer's previous works?
OK, that's not entirely fair; let me give credit where it's due: From the opening paragraph, it's apparent Heinlein is trying something different. Harsh Mistress, which is the story of the lunar prison colony's revolt against Earth's government, aided by a super-powerful sentient computer, is narrated in the first person by Manuel Garcia O'Kelly, a computer repairman who speaks Ensign Chekov–esque English with an accent so thick it comes through in print. ("I see in Lunaya Pravda that Luna City Council has passed on first reading a bill to examine, license, inspect — and tax — public food vendors operating inside municipal pressure. I see also is to be mass meeting tonight to organize 'Sons of Revolution' talk-talk" goes that first graf.) Ironically, Mannie's voice does just about nothing to mask Heinlein's typical one, and actually calls attention to the author's lack of tonal range by trying to be different and failing.**
Which also calls attention to the author's other handicaps, the biggest of which is an expanded version of the problem I had with Starship Troopers: Heinlein is an unrepentant deck-stacker. First, the circumstances are such that Luna City and the rest of the moon have to revolt, or else they're doomed. And sure, the characters may be planning this dangerous revolution while barely protected from a lethally severe lunar environment — but not to worry, none of them will die (at least, not until circumstances are such that the death is poignant rather than tragic). In fact, the characters will never have to overcome a single serious obstacle — just a handful of minor road bumps that enable them to demonstrate how capable they are. Enemies and opponents will always be thoroughly incompetent and frequently thoroughly reprehensible (so that when they die, no one has to feel bad). And whenever a question arises, every single good guy will arrive at exactly the same answer as the other good guys, because they all use logic to get there — and logically, there is of course always only one right answer to any question.